Bernal Heights Warehouse Tenants Face Eviction after Ghost Ship Fire

Thursday, February 23, 2017
Michael Barba
San Francisco Examiner

An artist collective living in a Bernal Heights warehouse had to get creative recently to pass muster with the San Francisco Fire Department.

The artists, who are in danger of losing their home in the wake of the deadly Ghost Ship fire in Oakland late last year, cut windows and a second door into the mostly metal warehouse on Peralta Avenue ahead of a meeting with fire officials Tuesday.

“We did it ourselves,” said Nathan Cottam, a dancer and choreographer who is one of eight tenants living in the vibrant warehouse called the Sunspot.

Cottam is just one of many people who have lived on the lot behind the Alemany Farmers Market for about a decade, he said. But their occupancy only became an issue after a fire killed three dozen people who were trapped in the Ghost Ship warehouse Dec. 2, 2016.

Since then, building and fire inspectors have visited the Sunspot warehouse, and the owner served the tenants with an eviction notice back in December.

City agencies have been on heightened alert for fire safety hazards in commercial spaces where people are living and the SFFD has experienced a rise in complaints regarding the illegal use of warehouses, according to fire officials.

Meanwhile, artists continue to live in warehouses to avoid the exorbitant cost of rent in San Francisco.

“It’s very difficult to pursue art or anything that doesn’t make a lot of money and that is close enough to [the center of culture in San Francisco],” said Cottam, who is the artistic director at a nonprofit called Mannakin Theater and Dance.

On Tuesday, fire officials decided the warehouse was habitable but still issued an order to abate the property because people are living in a building zoned for commercial use.

The department does not have the authority to evict tenants but could have issued a harsher sanction on the owner if the safety concerns were more egregious, like an emergency order to vacate the property.

“The San Francisco Fire Department is not in the business of evicting occupants,” said SFFD spokesperson Jonathan Baxter.

But Cottam and his housemates are not out of the woods yet. The tenants are facing an unlawful detainer lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court after they ignored the 30-day eviction notice from co-owner Ron Erickson of Cornerstone Property Management.

“They’re not artists,” Erickson said. “It’s just a total scam. They’re trying to use the papers and everybody else against us.”

Erickson has plans to demolish the Sunspot and an adjacent warehouse to construct a five-story condominium building.

City records show the owners have planned to build residential units on the site since 2001. In July, the owners filed a $7 million plan to build 49 condos that is still under review with the Planning Department.

“I understand the owner’s desire to put up condos, but he’s been holding one hand over his eyes and the other out for a check recent years,” Cottam said.

Erickson said he walked through the two warehouses after the Ghost Ship fire because he was afraid the artists in the other warehouse were living there instead of working. Instead, he found that people were living in the Sunspot.

“It has a mezzanine, and a bunch of bedrooms,” Erickson said. “In my building, he went ahead and cut windows in. He cut a side door. This is all without our permission.”

Erickson also said he rented the space for commercial, not residential use.

“Every time you have illegal live-work space, they all say that,” said Dennis Zaragoza, an attorney for Cottam. “You can’t have people living there for four years or six years and the landlord say, ‘well I didn’t know.’”

A court date has not been set for the case, Cottam said.

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